Yet Again: The Numbers Show Excess Deaths

Not the flu.

Because the Trump administration and its supports want to downplay the effects of the virus on the broad population, we return yet again to the subject of excess deaths relative to normal. Via Scientific American: Debunking the False Claim That COVID Death Counts Are Inflated.

A persistent falsehood has been circulating on social media: the number of COVID deaths is much lower than the official statistic of more than 218,000, and therefore the danger of the disease has been overblown. In August President Trump retweeted a post claiming that only 6 percent of these reported deaths were actually from COVID-19. (The tweet originated from a follower of the debunked conspiracy fantasy QAnon.) Twitter removed the post for containing false information, but fabrications such as these continue to spread. 

The piece continues:

Now some facts: Researchers know beyond a doubt that the number of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have surpassed 200,000. These numbers are supported by three lines of evidence, including death certificates. The inaccurate idea that only 6 percent of the deaths were really caused by the coronavirus is “a gross misinterpretation” of how death certificates work, says Robert Anderson, lead mortality statistician at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics.

The overall approach looks at three pieces of evidence: case surveillance, and death certificates, but also to excess deaths specifically:

They are the number of deaths that occur above and beyond the historical pattern for that time period, says Steven Woolf, a physician and population health researcher at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine. In a paper published in JAMA this month, Woolf and his colleagues examined death records in the U.S. from March 1 through August 1 and compared them with the expected mortality numbers. They found that there was a 20 percent increase in deaths during this time period—for a total of 225,530 excess deaths—compared with previous years.

Two thirds of these cases were attributed to COVID-19 on the death certificates, and Woolf says there are two types of explanations for the rest: Some of them were COVID-19 deaths that simply were not documented as such, perhaps because the person died at home and was never tested or because the certificate was miscoded. And some of the extra deaths were probably a consequence of the pandemic yet not necessarily the virus itself. For instance, he says, imagine a patient with chest pain who is scared to go to the hospital because they do not want to get the virus and then dies of a heart attack. Woolf calls this “indirect mortality.” “The deaths aren’t literally caused by the virus itself but the pandemic is claiming lives,” he says.

If anything, note the following:

COVID-19 is now the third leading cause of death in the U.S. Whether the number of lives cut short add up to 218,511, 219,681 or 219,541—as reported by the CDC, Johns Hopkins University and the New York Times, respectively, on October 19—it’s a staggering number of lives cut short.

US deaths per week broken down by cause of death

You know: just like the flu!

FILED UNDER: US Politics, , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. CSK says:

    It’s not just social media; it’s “news outlets” such as The Gateway Pundit, OANN, The Conservative Tree House, and The American Thinker (sic) that are promoting this notion.

    A large number of people read a crackpot blog such as The Gateway Pundit and think they’re getting real news that the deep state and its minions at CNNABCNYTNBCCBS et al are concealing from them

  2. DrDaveT says:

    I am (yet again) struck by the extreme seasonality in some of the major causes of death — heart disease, kidney disease (!?), chronic lower respiratory disease, etc. I can’t help but suspect that the winter peaks above the baseline levels for those conditions are mostly preventable deaths. I’d be curious to see whether countries with robust health care systems show the same degree of seasonality.

  3. Jen says:

    @DrDaveT: IIRC, part of that seasonality can be attributed to access to transportation, public or otherwise. If the weather is horrible and you rely on public buses to get to your dialysis appointment, you tend to be more likely to skip them. If you drive yourself and it’s bad weather out, you cancel. Etc. Also, heart attacks and snow shoveling is most certainly correlated up here in the North.

  4. MarkedMan says:

    I tracked the excess death count pretty closely for a while, probably into July and a few things became apparent. First was that in the first wave, we missed a lot. Some of these were added in later and my feeling was that with those changes the C19 count was actually about 25-30% higher than was being reported, but trending downward.

    The second thing is that the excess death rate due to non-covid sources cuts both ways. The article above mentions people who were afraid to go the hospital and so died of something else. But there were a fair number of deaths averted during the early stages, especially during lockdown. Bars and restaurants closed mean fewer drunk drivers, among other things. If I remember correctly there were states that locked down before they got any significant number of cases and so saw a significant decline from the expected death rate (single digit percents).

  5. CSK says:

    Speaking of the incidence of Covid, Melania Trump will not attend her husband’s rally in Pennsylvania tonight because she is still recovering from the illness.

    Because I’m an evil person, the first thing that popped into my head was that even his wife is bailing on him at this point.

  6. TPM notes that the demographic groups that are experiencing the largest percentage increase in death rate are “Latino or Hispanic” and ages 25-44.


  7. MarkedMan says:

    @MarkedMan: I just re-read my comment and realized I misstated my conclusions pretty dramatically. It should read “Early on we were undercounting by 25-30%, dropping to 15% later on as some of the big misses were added back in and we got better at counting, and still trending down when I stopped looking.”

    That said, it was before the Trump states started getting hit hard and there appears to be some deliberate shenanigans (as opposed to chaos and ignorance) with the count in some or most of those states, so who knows? After all you have the Republican governor of North Dakota going on the nightly news to assure everyone there are plenty of hospital beds while on the same day family members are being told the closest bed is hundreds of miles away in a different state (and not being told how much this medi-vac is going to cost. You just know it is not going to be covered by insurance…)

    You really can’t trust a Republican.

  8. DrDaveT says:

    The EU has lost it. They’ve now blown through the 100,000 new cases per day mark, and the graph is still curving upward. They’ve also caught back up to the US in deaths per day, at just over 700.

  9. Kathy says:

    From the Hope and Dread front, the UK is bankrolling a human challenge trial.

    I thought that ship had sailed when large scale phase 3 trials started in the field late in August. Apparently not.

    One item caught my attention:

    The trial will start with a “characterisation study” in January [..], which will attempt to establish the minimum dose of the virus required to cause a Covid infection

    That’s expected to take between tow and four months, and that’s before any vaccines can be tested.

    But it does make sense, even if it doesn’t look to be speeding up anything. Aside from determining the dose needed for infection, the idea later is to test various vaccines against each other as well. This si important, or may be, because we don’t know whether the vaccines currently being tested are effective, nor how much, nor for how long.

    Say the Oxford vaccine gets an effectiveness of 65%. Neat. But if that gets widely distributed, volunteers for other vaccines alter on, which might be more effective, will be harder to find (and the vaccines harder to test).

    We’ll see. There are many ethical hurdles that haven’t been cleared. After all, there’s no effective treatment yet, and the virus can be fatal even for people not in groups considered to be at risk.

    Meantime keep your masks on and stay away from crowds. It will be a while yet.

  10. Michael Reynolds says:

    In cold weather people spend more time with family. That’ll kill you.

  11. Kathy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Yes. And there’s the virus to worry about as well.

  12. Mister Bluster says:

    @Michael Reynolds:..In cold weather people spend more time with family

    I live alone…So Tired

  13. Franklin says:

    So I just spent time with some old friends which for brevity we’ll call conservatives. Besides trying to peddle exactly the crap that the Scientific American article debunks, they were also insistent that the virus would have no permanent effect on us, all of us being fairly healthy forty-somethings. My co-worker with scarring in his lungs would probably beg to differ, but whatever. I ask what about protecting the vulnerable? “It’s their responsibility to protect themselves.”

    I have a hard time talking to people with this mindset, it’s so different than mine that I have a hard time understanding where they’re coming from.

  14. Tony W says:

    @Franklin: I have had to cut people like that out of my life completely. When I learn that they do not care a lick for the vulnerable among us, I find that we have an incompatible moral foundation.